This essay is my initial effort to theorize a revolutionary synthesis of V.I. Lenin’s and W.E.B. Du Bois’ theorizing of paths to revolutionary democracy and socialism. This synthesis might be a theoretical guide for understanding a Fourth American Revolution. A revolution which builds upon the Third American Revolution, what is generally called the Civil Rights Movement. My central assumption is that a new qualitative level of theory is called for in this moment of crisis and what could become a new stage in the struggle for democracy and socialism.
The United States of America is in what might be the most profound crisis of its history. The nation is divided in ways never seen. Polling data show 80% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction; 60% say the government is corrupt and does not represent them and 25% say they would support using arms to change the government. Most Americans disapprove of President Joe Biden's performance in office and less than 25% support his administration’s economic policies. The approval of the US Congress is below 20%. Few Americans trust politicians, government, the media, the courts, universities, or elites. The nation is becoming ungovernable. Gun violence has taken over major cities. The US population feels unsafe.
Many socialists have abandoned revolutionary theory and become reformist linked to the Democratic Party. Some have retreated into sectarian debates about Marxism, the Russian revolution and other matters. Others claiming to advance the struggle against racism and for Black equality nihilistically trash the American revolution arguing that fascism was coded into America’s political DNA from the very outset. Claiming that the American Revolution was a counterrevolution, to uphold slavery, that the civil war was but another episode of a racist and ultimately fascist nation. Putting aside the logic of the many arguments about the past, these claims are about the present and the future. What they are saying is that there is no future for the American people. It justifies joining the ruling elites and the Democratic Party. They preach pessimism and nihilism. It continues a trend begun in the 1980’s where academics and public intellectuals abandoned working people. Most of the Left in the US is an anti-working-class extension of the US ruling class. Hence, their anti-capitalist protests are but a veil to hide their actual essence as apologists for the rule of neoliberal authoritarian elite. The theorists of these claims in turn say that the political, intellectual and financial elites are the most progressive and anti-racist part of the white population. They disparage every call for the unity of working people.
It is argued that a US civil war is imminent. Some say we’re in a pre revolutionary situation. Most of the Left cannot figure out a way out of the crisis. Most of have written the working people off, claiming they don’t have the moral or political capacity to transform the crisis into a struggle for democracy and working people’s rights. However, this moment cries out for revolutionary theory which fits this moment. Such theory must accurately account for specificities of US history and the political and moral capacity of its people. It must address the logic of the formation of the US ruling class and the working class and the formation and history of the US state.
A Dark and Tragic Landscape
Most Americans are either unemployed, underemployed, poor, homeless or ill housed, hungry or ill-fed, uneducated or poorly educated, drug addicted, mentally or physically ill, and imprisoned. Life expectancy is in dramatic decline and suicides reach historic levels. Stranded populations of young, mainly white people, exist on precarious islands of drug addiction and homelessness, encamped in deindustrialized urban neighborhoods. Children and teenagers are experimenting with and becoming addicted to lethal drugs. Many overdose on them. Suicide has become a life choice for thousands of children and teenagers as an answer to overwhelming social and personal crises. Fear grips the people, forcing many to retreat from society and the struggle for change. Children and youth are in the deepest distress. They have been abandoned by our society that is driven insane by greed, the worship of obscene wealth, extreme materialism and war. For tens of millions of children and youth life is a long cold winter. This social, economic and political situation is unsustainable. For most Americans this is a dark and tragic landscape. The nation prepares itself for a great catastrophe.
A Great Revolutionary Rupture and Leninism
The greatest revolutionary rupture of modernity was the Russian Revolution. The great theorist of that revolution and perhaps of modernity was V.I. Lenin. The theory of the Russian Revolution is undoubtedly Leninism. Lenin proposed against most revolutionaries of his time that imperialism could break at its weakest link, rather than its core, and that Russia could be the vanguard of the world socialist revolution and the first seizure of state power by the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. Lenin bent philosophy, history, theory and science to one aim, revolutionary struggle for power.
However, the logic of the Russian Revolution must always be scientifically understood. What we learn from the Russian Revolution must be creatively and scientifically applied to other revolutionary processes, especially in the United States.
For revolutionary theory to advance it is necessary to scientifically study the US, its history and the capacities of its people. In this respect the Du Boisian body of work is crucial. He produced works that are a foundation for revolutionary thinking and practice in the 21st century. They are among the most important works in US and modern intellectual history. Among them are, Black Reconstruction in America, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward An Autobiography of a Race Concept, Color and Democracy, The World and Africa, In Battle for Peace and Russia and America. They can be viewed as a single whole, with an integrity and commonality, and a single-minded commitment to revolutionary change. They evidence a revolutionary historiography, as well as epistemological and philosophical ruptures and relocations and a radical and creative sociology. He called Karl Marx the most important modern philosopher. He made no bones that much of his research considered Marx’s scientific discoveries. Du Bois, thus, creatively synthesizes Marxism, scientific socialism and investigations of America and world civilizations. His sociological and historical research introduces experimental methodological apparatuses. His sociological innovations are his way of getting at very difficult to discover truths. He deploys logics in unusual ways, seeking laws of social development and what he calls “uncaused causes.” He bends and revises Marxian assumptions geared exclusively to Europe; and explains how race, class and civilizational questions must be addressed if we are to understand the forward trajectory of history to socialism and communism. Du Bois’ oeuvre is, arguably, the most significant body of revolutionary thought produced in America. His thinking and research occurred in a time when the US had become the major capitalist nation, in the end, with an imperial and military reach that surpassed any of the previous imperialist nations. Let’s recall Lenin theorized from what Marx had discovered but applied it to a new capitalist epoch—the epoch of imperialism and finance capital—and to what was considered a “backward” nation. Du Bois was doing something similar, though not the same; he was applying Marxian conclusions to the imperialist epoch of capitalism but when the US was becoming the dominant capitalist nation.
Du Bois, therefore, had to consider the conditions and grounds for democratic and revolutionary struggle in the US. While the arc of his work bends to this one aim, his Black Reconstruction in America is perhaps the work which best crystalizes his thinking on revolutionary change. Du Bois considered this work more than a historical description or mere explanation of past events, but as a scientific work that probed the patterns and laws of America’s social development and its potential for revolutionary change. It is a study of race and class, but in the end, it is a study of the class struggle in the US. As a scientific innovation Black Reconstruction stands alongside Marx’ Das Kapital and Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. It advances new science and new theory. Du Bois provides a body of research and theory that adds to and advances existing revolutionary theory, especially as it applies to the US.
Du Boisian Sociology and Revolutionary Theory
Du Bois was forced to develop science and theory that would address the burning questions of US history and especially where Black folk, the enslaved proletariat, stood in relation to the proletariat in general and the movement of American history. Du Bois like Lenin saw history as critical for any social understanding. History informs and contextualizes political and ideological events. However, Du Bois is a founder of modern sociology. Rather than privileging political economy, as Marx and Lenin did, Du Bois sees sociology to be the critical social science for understanding human complexity and human action. Du Bois’ sociology is multi methodological. Epistemologically he was a scientific materialist, believing there is an objective world and there is truth. It is as he said the study of man, but a study of humanity in all its complexities. Hence, while Du Bois asserts the importance of laws of society, he insists that alongside laws there is chance. Chance reflects the uniquely human, the unpredictable and possible in human behavior. In this respect, sociology provides a richer framework for understanding human beings than does political economy and its laws of economic behavior. As articulated by Du Bois sociology better explains race and racial oppression and its effects. It can better explain the relationships segments, groups and individuals in the working class, the function of race and racism with developed capitalist societies and the relationships between workers and other classes. Du Boisian sociology more accurately explains racial separation and oppression. The racial separation creates specific conditions of class and class struggle in the United States. Throughout his sociology Du Bois is always considering the capacities of people to act purposefully in order to change society. His sociological methods are always asking the question, “What is possible”, “What are human beings capable of”. In this regard his sociology has a dynamism to it, rather than static numbers counting. Most striking is his notion of double consciousness that is a social quality of Black people in the US. He asserts that Black people see the world in twos, through the lens of blackness and alternatively through the lens of the white world. This twoness impacts class consciousness among Black and white workers.
Black Reconstruction consciously seeks to explain the laws of revolutionary change in the US. He uses the Civil War and Reconstruction as the concrete period of struggle. He starts Black Reconstruction with the chapter “The Black Worker”. From an explanatory standpoint, the Black worker is a sociological and historical category. It is a category of analysis and a concrete reality of American social geography. The explanatory category, the Black worker, suggests that the trajectory of the class struggle in the US is unavoidably connected to racial separation, racial identities and racial and class consciousness. The Black worker as conceived by Du Bois is specific and perhaps unique to American history. Furthermore, the Black worker is not just workers who are physical “black”, but a historically constituted part of the working class, who as slaves were an enslaved proletariat. Black workers thus have a specific history, but are part of the general history of the US working class. This social scientific category is necessary to explain American history, the class struggle as well as the struggles for democracy and Black civil and legal rights. However, to elevate this category to the level of a universal concrete Du Bois had to sociological study it in all its concreteness and manifestations. He concludes, after extended investigation, that much of the future of democracy and revolution in the US would pivot on the Black worker.
It seems perfectly clear that a theory of the revolutionary and democratic struggles in the US can not avoid Du Bois’ sociological and historical innovations. His scientific discoveries are tied to his methods of doing social science which are connected to his sociology. His methods of empirical research, from which he gathers data and sociological facts, such as the actuality of racial separation, double consciousness, and the central role of the Black worker to the class struggle, are necessary to understanding class and race and the class struggle in the US. Du Bois’ sociological methods give us ways of seeing and explaining concrete conditions of working people and especially of Black folk. When applied to actual struggle Du Bois’ sociological methods gives a clearer understanding of working people than does political economy. Political economy explains large structures of economic and material production and reproduction of economic and class relationships. It fails to explain actual human beings, their limits and potentialities and the possibilities of human action. In other words, sociology better explains the complexities of the human factor in the processes of social change. Du Bois bends social science, as sociology, to the human in all its complexities and manifestations. His research and theorization present a more accurate understanding of the potential of social change.
Du Bois on Civilization and Paths to Communism
Du Bois’ writing on democracy, socialism and communism clarifies many of the aims of his sociology and historiography. In 1961 before leaving for Ghana to restart work on his Encyclopedia of Africa and to live his final days, he joined the Communist Party of the United States, declaring, “I believe in communism.” The father of Pan Africanism, the towering theorist of race, a vanguard in the anticolonial struggle, was, as importantly, one of the great theorists of communism. For the final forty years of his life, he theorized and rethought possible paths to socialism and communism. After a month in the Soviet Union in 1926 he wrote “If what I’ve seen is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” In an extraordinary conclusion Du Bois insisted that Asia and Africa’s advances to socialism and communism would grow the global economy and widen opportunities for all workers throughout the world. He inverts the idea that Europe would lift Africa and Asia.
In an unpublished manuscript Russia and America, Du Bois applies his historical and sociological methods to understanding the concrete possibilities of communism as a social system. It is a defense of socialism in the Soviet Union, a theorization of the possibilities of socialism becoming a world system, replacing world capitalism, and socialist globalization coming through Asia and how the probable path to communism would witness an Asian leap through the centuries. However, the transitions from socio-economic backwardness to socialism and finally communism would require social scientific knowledge and sophisticated planning. All of this would bring forth a new epoch, a new world socio-economic system and new human civilizations.
The prerequisites for communism were, he theorized, more readily grounded in the values of Asian and African civilizations, especially ones that had had socialist revolutions and established the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat. Du Bois thought creatively about questions such as forms of state power, including the dictatorship of the proletariat and the state of the entire people and what is today called the civilization state. He thought in new, unprecedented ways, about a new type of communism, (“a different kind of communism”) based on a new way of thinking, and forms of state power and people’s democracy rooted in Asian civilizational values. He creatively synthesized several modalities of social scientific, philosophical and historical investigation; comparing civilizations and their capacity to achieve communism. These interrogations have meaning in the 21st century; a century where Asia is overtaking the West and the US is confronted with domestic political instability and a rising crisis of government and bourgeois class rule.
He saw the Russian Revolution in civilizational terms and as essentially Asian. He viewed it as the beginning of reclaiming the civilizations of the East as part of a march to communism, while the West on its own could only manage New Deal type social democracy. Hence, for the progressives and radicals in western nations their ultimate contribution to the forward march of human civilization was to fight for peace and against imperialist wars. The fight for peace is a form of mutuality and internationalism. Africa and Asia’s advances to socialism and communism, would create global circumstances for the working classes in the West to be pulled along by winds of revolutionary change coming from the East. The advances of the East create favorable conditions for revolutionary change in advanced capitalist nations.
Du Bois and Lenin on Class Struggle and Civilization
One of the towering accomplishments of Russia and America is Du Bois’ theorizing of the relationships between civilization, class struggle, socialism and communism. These issues are deeply important for the 21st century. The Russian Revolution became for Du Bois a concrete area of research in history and sociology. He studied the dictatorship of the proletariat as a form of people’s democracy and people’s defense of their revolutionary triumphs. Lenin, he said, is “one of the great men of this century” and a social scientist. “Lenin was not the sort of modern Sociologist, who boasted of his science, and did nothing to discover its laws.” Du Bois concludes “following Karl Marx, he saw the rhythm of history and determined to plan human life in accord with known knowledge” And therefore, “He studied not only the written word of history and economics, but the actual current deeds of living men.”
He saw China, like the Soviet Union, as the nation where the same questions could be studied. Ruined by civil war, feudal relationships of production and foreign control, China, for him, remained indispensable to understanding the possibilities of communism. “Any attempt to explain the world, without giving China a place of extraordinary prominence is futile.” Speaking of a new socialist economic system in China after the Chinese Revolution, Du Bois says, “It would take a new way of thinking on Asiatic lines to work this out, but there would be a chance that out of India, out of Buddhism and Shintoism, out of age old virtues of Japan and China itself, to provide for this different kind of communism, a thing which so far all attempts at a socialistic state in Europe have failed to produce; that is a communism with its Asiatic stress on character, on goodness, on spirit, through family loyalty and affection might ward off Thermidor (counterrevolution -- AM); might stop the tendency of the Western socialistic state to freeze into bureaucracy.” He concludes, “It might through the philosophy of Gandhi and Tagore, of Japan and China really create a vast democracy into which the ruling dictatorship of the proletariat would fuse deliquesce: and thus, instead of socialism ever becoming a stark negation of freedom of thought and a tyranny of action and propaganda of science and art, it would expand to a great democracy of the spirit.”
Critical to all of this is breaking the over-determination of capitalist laws of development over human social relations; they would be replaced with the laws of socialist development leading to communism and freedom. This, in Du Bois’ thinking, is the movement from Necessity to Freedom, from over-determination by the laws of capitalist development to full human actualization and the new human being. The great tragedy, however, for an emerging Pan Asian civilizational convergence, was that Japan “learned Western ways too soon and too well and turned from Asia to Europe.”
Du Bois and Lenin on the Capacities of the Working CLass
Du Bois’ and Lenin’s thinking intersects at a critical political/theoretical moment, i.e., could “backward” peoples leap to the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. For Lenin, could the “backward” Russian proletariat be the vanguard of world socialist revolution; for Du Bois could the Black proletariat lead the American working class and the democratic struggle and even build a democratic dictatorship of the Black proletariat in the US south after the US Civil War. Lenin answered that the small, relatively undeveloped and “backward” Russian proletariat could lead a socialist revolution. For his opponents in the powerful German Social Democratic Party and their followers throughout Europe, including Russia, the consensus was that Russia was too backward to either carry out a socialist revolution or hold on to it if they did. Lenin made a civilizational reposition of the Russian Revolution away from the European left and towards Asia.
For Du Bois working class socialists like Eugene V Debs and others, understood class, class struggle and socialism in dogmatic and narrow ways. For him they did not understand the full scope and complexity of the class struggle, nor its relationship to racial oppression and the Black worker. Du Bois invents a wider worldview than normally associated with US socialists; one that when looked at today shows a more accurate path to socialism.
Could it be, given the claims about the backward US working class, that we are confronted with questions that Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America and Lenin in the essay “Our Revolution” engaged? The evidence of academic and journalistic arguments is that the consensus view is that the US working class, especially white workers are irreversibly backward.
Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction presents a defense of the historical role of the Black proletariat against claims that it was backward and thus a threat to civilization. He showed that the black worker had the capacity to be the main force fighting against slavery. He says 500,000 of them participated in what was a general strike by putting down their tools, refusing to work and leaving the plantations. He also showed that 165,00 of them joined the Union army and against the South. His conclusion was that Black workers were in the vanguard of the fight for their freedom. During Reconstruction he argued that a democratic dictatorship of the Black proletariat was possible in several states of the South.
Lenin under different circumstances makes a similar argument concerning the question, how could Russian workers bring about a socialist revolution and how without the European working class could they hold on to it. He says, “[B]ut what about a people that found itself in a revolutionary situation such as that created during the first imperialist war? Might it not, influenced by the hopelessness of its situation, fling itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual.” And then asks, “why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way.” Lenin’s and Du Bois’ argument is that a “backward” working class could through struggle and given a historic crisis such as world war, civil war or economic catastrophe make a qualitative leap and in so doing not only throw off the chains of oppression but create conditions for a new civilization and new human beings. This, despite the existential terror of daily life. Du Bois makes a similar argument concerning Black workers. They were, he insisted, “everything African” and “a civilization in potentiality”; he theorized a new civilization might emerge from their struggle for freedom. Though forced into “backwardness” by oppression, they could free themselves and create a new civilization in the US. That remains possible.
Du Bois and Lenin argue against the gradual freeing of the “backward” people by more “advanced” and enlightened classes. The intensity and catastrophic character of a crisis can propel the “backward” to the vanguard of humanity. Both Du Bois and Lenin argue that in making revolution the “backward” start the process of making civilization. Showing that backwardness is not absolute.
As to the claim that the US working class is “backward”; Du Bois and Lenin would respond, the “backward” often leap forward through centuries to become the vanguard. Moreover, the class struggle can be viewed as a fight for civilization, for a new civilization; in specific moments of systemic crisis the class struggle is more than the class struggle. Upon the shoulders of “backward” people rides the future of humanity. This is what Du Bois concluded about the slaves and Black folk after slavery; it is what Lenin concluded about the future of the Russian revolution. If a working-class left is to emerge it must attack the idea that the US working class is irredeemably backward.
Finally, even as we consider the necessity of a new revolutionary synthesis, I believe it fair to say the dynamic part of the synthesis, especially for this moment in US history, is Du Bois’ theorizing. His thinking clarifies the paths towards democracy and revolutionary change in the US. His thinking lays bare what are the conditions and possibilities of a Fourth American Revolution. The emergence of a new and revolutionary Left depends upon understanding the vital necessity of a new revolutionary synthesis; a DuBoisian Leninist synthesis.
Anthony Monteiro is a Du Boisian scholar, long time activist in the struggle for Black liberation and founder of the Saturday Free School in Philadelphia.